I am generally a luddite. I was a park ranger in a place with no accessible phone, computer, tv, etc for three summers and I loved it. So much that I turned off the ringer on my phone over the winter back in civilization and checked and returned messages once a day. It was so nice to be connected on my terms and to never, ever be jolted by a ringing phone. While rangering I wrote paper letters, I walked over to visit friends in their nearby cabins, I hiked in major bear country with no communication. So of course I was not very keen on getting my first cell phone, through work, 4 years ago.
An electronic leash. It only made calls, not texts. I didn’t take it with me most places, and usually forgot it even when I should have had it for work. I rarely used it – maybe an incoming work call every few days or so, and I still had my land line at home. Over time, I became more and more dependent – transitioning to the point where a few months ago I had a cell with texting capabilities that had replaced my land line altogether, and that I almost always had on me. Then I got an iphone, because it was suggested for work. This time, however, I was a bit obsessive – quickly getting into a pattern of frequent email and fb checkins, looking things up on wikipedia because I could, kinda being a nuisance in social situations. That cooled off as the novelty faded, but there have been instances where the smart phone has been damn convenient, and a couple where I think it has actually enhanced my life and or value to this world. Mostly these have been in ways that make it easier for me to exist without a car.
The first time I really was impressed with the phone was when it greatly enhanced my civic responsibility to improve pedestrian safety. I had noticed that a walk signal was malfunctioning at a busy intersection near my house – the call button never successfully brought up the happy, glowing white walk person, and we all crossed against the angry red hand and the glowers of right-turning motorists who thought we were not waiting our turn. After a few weeks of this (yah, I’m not a super fast responder sometimes) I was crossing during normal business hours and got enough motivation to take out the phone, google the municipality’s traffic signal maintenance page and press the highlighted phone number there to put the call through. The next day the signal was fixed! If left to a land line and a phonebook I would have lost all sense of urgency by the time I reached them.
More regularly, the phone helps me use local transit. The Peoplemover bus has real time bus tracking, with a web ap that allows me to check exactly when a given bus will be at a given stop. I use this every time I ride and it really helps with timing, minimizing waits in the cold, choosing routes, etc. I’m a fan. I’m much more likely to ride the bus now that I have this additional help with predictability and knowing if I have time to catch a bus or not. I can also access the rest of the Peoplemover webpage including system routes, maps, timetables, etc. Hopefully someday they will have a route planning ap on the website as well, as recommended in the High Priority Transportation Corridor Plan. This plan is pretty nifty, by the way, leading me to hope for all kinds of great things for my favorite route – Spenard number 7 – like increased frequency, at least during peak times, and traffic signal prioritization for the bus. Probably in the far future if at all- but I can dream.
One occasional deterrent for me in riding buses is having to know where to pull the cord to get off (this is a big one in foreign or unknown places where the convenience of a subway on a dedicated line, stoping at each stop is such a relief). The fear of missing my stop certainly leads me to be much more willing to take the bus for routine travel that I am very familiar with, and slightly hesitant to try a new route where I’m not sure what the best stop is, and what it will look like as we are approaching. I haven’t done this yet, but I just realized that I could open my map application and watch my little blue pulsing ‘you are here’ dot approach my predetermined destination to help me figure out how close I am and quell that nervousness.
And speaking of being in an unfamiliar city, when I went to DC recently I was able to download a free DC metro ap for the phone that helped me navigate and time my rides on the metro (although with trains every few minutes and easy to read route maps everywhere, this was mostly for my pre-planning and confidence building benefit).
Then there are the normal conveniences that come from having a phone in your pocket – being able to let someone you are meeting know if you are on time or not, being able to call someone if you get stranded or lose your bus fare (not that I’ve had this happen, but it’s nice to have the security). These things plus the map feature can help with biking and walking as well, planning routes, giving a sense of security for those worried about popping tires or being late to meet a friend.
Is the phone necessary for being car free? Certainly not. Do I still dream of not being tethered electronically all the time? Certainly. Does the phone make my non-car life a bit easier. Yes, absolutely – mostly when I ride, or contemplate riding, transit. Of course, another solution would be to simplify my life to the point where I rarely had to be anywhere at a set time, then I could easily ditch the phone and just start walking!